Last Word on Coming Together

January 2020

By // Paul Toner, J.D.

Director of National Policy, Partnerships and the Northeast Region at Teach Plus

Paul Toner is the senior director of national policy, partnerships and the Northeast region at Teach Plus, where he works to engage and elevate the voices of teachers in local, state and national education policy. Toner is the former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Cambridge Education Association. He is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, a Pahara-Aspen Teacher Leader Fellow and member of the Broad Academy class of 2017.

Coming Together to Prepare
Teachers to Educate for the Future

Under the banner of “Red for Ed” and slogans such as “When we fight, we win,” teachers, activists and unions across the country have been on the move and demanding significantly more financial resources from their community, business and political leaders to support the essential, life-changing work they do. They are seeking respect for their profession and acknowledgment that the future of our country relies on the education of our students. They have been effective in raising the issues and calling the public’s attention to the challenges faced by educators in our public schools.

American public schools and educators are being asked to do something they have never been asked to do before and were not designed to do. Not only are teachers tasked with preparing ALL students academically for college and future careers, active participation as citizens, and future leadership of our democracy, they are also expected to meet students’ emotional needs. We have entered a world of profound change in which knowledge — not industry — is the future. Thinking for a living is the norm, not the exception, and predictions about the “future of work” seem to be ever-changing.

“When we fight, we win” isn’t a long-term strategy. What we need is collaborative, student-centered leadership.Paul Toner, J.D.

Understandably, with all these pressures and demands for change, teachers and their unions have taken to the streets in several states and cities. They have demanded more resources for their students and schools, as well as better salaries, benefits and working conditions for themselves. Critics attack the unions as being self-serving and only concerned with increasing their membership and protecting their members while stifling much-needed reforms to better serve students. Unfortunately, this has created a very polarized education environment.

Based on recent public opinion polls, teachers and their unions are benefiting from significant support for their cause. Unions should absolutely advocate for good salaries, benefits, due process protections, and the tools and resources they need to do their jobs well. In the long term, however, “When we fight, we win” is not a strategy for success. To maintain public support for better compensation and the financial resources needed to meet the unmet needs in our schools, teachers and their unions must lead the profession and put forth a proactive set of solutions that are student-centered, resulting in better outcomes for all students. They must be flexible and open to new ideas. They need to take charge of quality by setting academic standards, developing student assessments, promoting better teacher preparation and professional development, supporting meaningful evaluations leading to continuous improvement, and most importantly, demanding shared leadership of our schools while taking shared responsibility for the success of our students.

Public education is no longer strictly a local affair involving superintendents, school boards and the teachers’ union. Concerns about funding inequities, low-performing schools and wide gaps in student achievement have led to a series of reforms giving the state and federal government more say in how schools and teachers work. These are tumultuous times, but I believe there is an enormous opportunity for teachers — along with parents, students and community partners — to take on the mantle of leadership and promote a real transformation in education and society. In order for us to address these challenges, we must cultivate a culture of achievement in our schools.

This requires developing a sense of shared ownership of the challenges that we face among all constituencies. We need strong, systemic and respectful processes that allow teachers, students, parents and administrators to develop shared solutions that result in advancing student, school and district achievement levels. Effective labor-management collaboration through networks of educators and administrators based on mutual respect and trust is an essential component to improving the learning of all students across diverse communities. It has been verified through recent research that when teachers’ unions and districts collaborate, students learn more. The NEA, AFT, AASA and NSBA have signed onto the National Call to Action for Collaboration. The NEA is providing resources and training its members who are seeking to develop collaborative partnerships to promote student success

Educators want to be treated like professionals and have more voice in shaping policy and practice in their schools and classrooms. They want to be the architects of transforming education and not the object of reforms. The only way we can bring about lasting and meaningful change in our schools for the benefit of our students is to provide teachers with a meaningful voice in the decisions affecting their day-to-day work life and developing strong labor-management collaboration at all levels — national, state and local. The future is filled with more challenges and the work of collaboration takes time and is extraordinarily complicated. It requires setting common goals and working with many constituencies. But we can’t make big change without teachers and the unions, which are both a major part of that process and structure of engagement.

Ultimately, as a nation, if we expect to hold onto our current teacher workforce and recruit a new, more diverse generation of high-quality teachers into the profession, we must do much more to promote respect for the profession, promote teacher leadership and provide the financial supports to make it a sustainable career.

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I really enjoyed this article. I wonder on a practical level, what it would look like for educators to play a larger role in policy formation. This makes me wonder if there are current avenues for educators to specifically partner with local leaders to discuss issues and potential solutions. If not, what could this collaboration look like on a practical level?

In response to: “[Teachers] need to take charge of quality by setting academic standards, developing student assessments, promoting better teacher preparation and professional development, supporting meaningful evaluations leading to continuous improvement, and most importantly, demanding shared leadership of our schools while taking shared responsibility for the success of our students”

While this vision is truly aspirational, this places an immense amount of pressure to place on the shoulders of teachers who already have plenty of responsibilities on their own. I worry that expecting teachers to take on all of these roles, this can unfortunately lead back into the cycle of burn out, which renders these goals vulnerable to their exhaustion. Many teachers might feel as though this second major ‘hat’ to wear (as an activist) is something they cannot devote significant time and energy towards. Therefore, I believe the conversation needs to emphasize the role teacher unions can have in terms of supporting teachers by advocating for these improvements, in addition to their primary demands for increased pay and pension guarantees. This might provide a desirable balance in which the teachers’ desires are represented and amplified, while allowing classroom instruction and leadership to remain their primary commitment.

Regarding teachers wanting to “be the architects of transforming education and not the object of reforms” is equivalent to a zoo keeper writing the handbook on how to safely clean a tiger’s enclosure; it’s a “no brainer.” Why wouldn’t the education system engage the very people, the teachers themselves, who are “on the ground” doing the actual work, in writing education policy?

Promoting more collaboration is vital if we want educational reforms to be successful and for students to be better prepared for life. Working together with parents, taxpayers, administrators, local, state, and federal leaders, along with teachers to create shared goals, understanding, and responsibilities will go a long way toward meeting this goal.

The part about educators wanting to be treated like professionals and have a say in policy stuck out to me the most. It’s been mentioned a lot in our readings about the importance of teacher support for an education reform to work and it really boils down to this. Teachers want a say in what they are going to be required to do in the classroom. They don’t want to be told what to do by people who aren’t teachers and don’t know how difficult it is to be teacher. I would probably feel the same way if I were a teacher.

“The only way we can bring about lasting and meaningful change in our schools for the benefit of our students is to provide teachers with a meaningful voice in the decisions affecting their day-to-day work…”

How to bridge the gap between policy and practice was a question that I asked Dr. Santilesis during our last class. This seems to be a recurring topic that has come up throughout many of the readings. Teachers are not as included as they should be. I think that this happens in many fields not just education. There is an obvious divide or disconnect from policymakers and those who are on the front lines.

I could not agree more with the conclusion of this article. I am hopeful that we will develop our policymaking in ways that advances the needs of educators to better suit their abilities in the classroom. It is true that the demands of teachers are high – not only do they need to prepare students for college and careers, they need to be emotionally available, provide discipline, and create active critical thinkers. Increased financial support will pave the way to respecting professionalism for teachers. We need stronger collaboration throughout our communities to equip teachers with potential for success.

Promoting respect for the profession of teaching is a must. We cannot let disrespect for teachers get by after everything they do and all of the hard work they put in. We need to have a balance between giving teachers more freedom and responsibility with what goes on in the classroom, and in the evaluation of success in what they are doing in the classrooms. In other words, we must help each teacher based on their needs and the area that they need support in and not have a “one size fits all” approach. No teacher is the same, but all teachers can still be effective in the way they teach.